Wednesday, January 9, 2008

The Battle for Bolivia


When I arrived to the sleepy town that Sucre was in the first week of November, before the deaths and the political power struggles and the displays of street power, I couldn’t imagine that we’d be where we are now. In reality, though, none of this is really all that surprising in light of the history of the tactics pursued by MAS, President Evo Morales’ party, and its oligarchy-led opposition.

Let’s be clear on what point we’re actually at right now. On December 9th the Constitutional Assembly, assigned to create a new Magna Carta for Bolivia which would recognize full rights of citizenship and cultural autonomy for the majority indigenous population for the first time in the nation’s history, met without the presence of the PODEMOS asembleistas, the oligarchy’s pet political party and the main opposition party, and approved a MAS-drafted Political Constitution of the State (CPE). That constitution must now be ratified by a simple majority of the nation’s populace. Throughout the week leading to December 15th, each of the prefects of Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando, and Tarija (the lowland tropical and semi-tropical provinces, together known as the media luna for their combined similarity to a half moon) had unilaterally declared themselves “autonomous” from the national government, purportedly retaining full rights to the assignment and distribution of the natural resources in their lands, in particular proclaiming invalid any attempts by the national government to redistribute oil wealth or land ownership, with that Saturday the 15th to be the official “division day” in which these pronouncements took effect. With over a month of civic disruption and violence sweeping across the county, calls from the international community to cease the escalating political confrontations and return to negotiations, and nearly every national media outlet (if not dinner table) asking the question “are we headed for civil war?”, the nation arrived on that fateful weekend with much apprehension and quite a bit of fear. Then, despite nearly all expectations, MAS-dominated La Paz and the pro-autonomous groups in the media luna, rather than devolving into street combat, instead celebrated their perceived respective victories in day-long fiestas that are now known as the “marcha de los pueblos.”

But let’s back up a little bit, to get some perspective on how this came to be.

Santa Cruz

A Political Duel Between the Past and the Future—Juan Ramón Quintana, Minister of the Presidency

The above quote might carry just a bit of irony, as those of us paying attention will remember him as a graduate of the prestigious School of the Americas (SOA), and as an “assessor” under Defense Minister Fernando Keiffer in Hugo Banzar’s infamous dictatorship. But irony notwithstanding, as a member of the center-left MAS’s current government he has managed to characterize an important historical aspect of the current crisis.

Bolivia’s history has always been one of contested resources. The territory named after Simon Bolivar was nearly double its current size at independence, with border wars successively leaning that fat baby up over time as neighboring states gradually encroached on her; Brazil into the rubber-rich Amazonian lands, Paraguay into the fossil fuel-rich Chaco, and of course that infamous incident with Chile and the Pacific coast. Internally Bolivia saw the same inter-regional violence; with the civil war between trade-rich La Paz and Sucre yeah neigh a century ago over the seat off effective government.

The ascent of Santa Cruz de la Sierra came with the explosion in the international price of coca leaf starting in the late 1960s, when North Americans discovered cocaine as the drug of choice in the urban discos. The Santa Cruz elite invested heavily in the cocaine industry, becoming the center of production in the 1970s and generating unparalleled wealth and growth. The Santa Cruz elite poured their almost unbelievable wealth from the drug trade into investments in land and real estate, fueling further economic growth in the licit economy.

The rapid economic growth drew immigration from around the world, including Japanese rice farmers, German-speaking Mennonites from Canada and Mexico, and a much-welcomed group of fugitive Nazis. The Bolivian government at the time was very much interested in the arrival of these less-dark additions to what they perceived to be a culture too drenched in indigenous, and encouraged their arrivals. One method of encouraging this was tolerance of highly questionable methods of land acquisition from the broken and depressed indigenous that were already living (or surviving, perhaps) on them. In one instance the government went so far as to offer South African and Rhodesian white farmers indigenous-occupied lands, calling it an and offer of “empty” lands (the offer was declined).

Due to these race-based affirmative action policies and the cocaine profits invested in legitimate businesses, Santa Cruz quadrupled its size between 1950 and 2001, with current estimates hovering around 1.5 million people, making it the largest metropolitan center in modern Bolivia (El Alto and La Paz, each with about 800,000 people, are technically considered separate cities despite being functionally one economic center). However, 60% of these current inhabitants are migrants from less economically productive parts of Bolivia, and La Paz remains the principal market for Cruceña (those from Santa Cruz) goods, so the appearance of cultural and economic mono-polarity is not borne out by reality.

In other words, the land reforms which the liberal Nationalist Revolutionary Movement (MNR) had inadvertently started in the Quecha and Aymara lands higher up in the Andes (by arming the peasants and miners during the National Revolution, which is much more difficult than un-arming them), actually saw an inverse occurrence in the eastern lowlands, with white elites taking more and more land from the relatively docile indigenous (when compared to those in the highlands).

The Hope of a Nation

Fast forward a few decades to the ascent of the Movement towards Socialism (MAS). After decades of organizing in the campo, this coalition of cocaleros, miners, urban syndicalists, Aymara migrants who split their seasons between working in the altiplano and El Alto (which is the peri-urban sprawl spreading out from the altiplano lip towering above La Paz) and the various indigenous social movements was expanding out of the road blocks and into formal politics. After numerous victories, Water War ’00, Gas War ’02, the ousting of ex-President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada (“Goni,” amongst friends) , MAS and its allies won the 2005 elections with 54% of the vote, the highest in Bolivian history.

MAS and its allies in the formerly repressed sectors of society viewed this as a mandate to radically change the structure of Bolivian society through the rewriting of the constitution, a longtime goal of the disparate movements under the MAS umbrella. One of the main objectives of the new constitution was to extend the land reforms into the lowlands, bringing new hope to indigenous there.

This latter objective, however, runs directly in opposition to the interests of the Santa Cruz elites by threatening their hard-stolen gains from the dark-skinned originarios, won through the drug trade and racist policies of the past half century. Thus the issues of who has authority over land reform and the legally defined size of latifundio (a Latin American concept of land ownership signifying something like “illegally large and unjust landholding”) have become a few of the most heavily contest issues of the new constitution.

Beyond the issues of land reform and resource control, ideological differences also sharply divide the two sides in the current crisis. The elites embraced neoliberalism during the 1980s and 90s, at least in part for its implicit acceptance of the quasi-legal methods of their economic dominance. On the other hand, the social movements making up MAS’s base would prefer to see a formal recognition of the highly communalized political and social organizations which they have continued to live in since even before the Incan Empire enslaved their ancestor, as well as a return to national political control of the nation’s resources which they feel have been sold to international investors for both too low a price and in counter to their worldviews.

In short, everyone knew there was going to be a fight, they just didn’t know how big it was going to be.

We’re already beginning to savor liberty...No one should decide to invade us nor militarize us—Rubén Costas, Prefect of Santa Cruz

Más Ruido que Nueces (more noise than substance)—Alfredo Rada, Minister of Government

Rallying behind PODEMOS, the opposition gained allies in the other lowland states (Beni, Pando, and Tarija), where similar land-ownership structures and resource ownership oligarchies felt similarly threatened by the MAS’s promise to redistribute the nation’s wealth to the historically oppressed. MAS, perhaps sensing the coming fight, or perhaps not trusting (or desiring) to see political power split outside of the party structure, responded by solidifying the pro-constitution movement under its banner. The result is that the original idea of a constitutional assembly (CA) elected directly from communities and indigenous groups was scrapped in favor of a political party-based assembly, with MAS and PODEMOS basically constituting the opposing sides. This disappointed not a few of the social movements and urban middle-class voters who had supported MAS in the original election. But the battle lines were drawn and it was apparently too late for aspirational details.

Coinciding with the election on July 2nd, 2006, for the assembly members, or asembleistias, the media luna enacted a national referendum for departmental autonomy. It’s important to note, however, that the question put to vote was formulated as being in light of the national constitutional process. While the resolution failed nationally, with “no” gaining 57.6% of the populous, the media luna departments all won a “yes” with overwhelming majorities; Santa Cruz and Tarija each saw “yes” votes reach over 70% of the departmental population. Despite the fact that the wording of the question explicitly subordinates departmental autonomy to the authority of the CPE, when it comes, the government quickly denounced the vote because, while expressing legitimate demands for greater decentralization of the national State, they perceived the influence of “certain sectors of cruceña society” harboring separatist interests.

Particularly it asked: “Are you in agreement, in line with the outline of national unity, with giving to the Constitutional Assembly a binding mandate to establish a regime of departmental autonomy, applicable immediately after the promulgation of a new Political Constitutional of the State in those departments where this Referendum has a majority such that their authorities…receive from the National State those executive competencies, administrative rule-making attributes and those economic-financial resources assigned to them by the new Political Constitution of the State and the laws of the Nation?”

PODEMOS, knowing it didn’t have enough votes in the CA to swing the text of the new constitution in their favor (which could basically get no better than the status quo for them), rapidly took the offensive using practically every trick it had to block the progress of the assembly, using stalling tactics and battles over technical details to prevent much pretty much anything from happening. Some of these arguments, of course, were based on valid democratic principles that attracted less opposed minority parties to the PODEMOS cause, and succeeded in achieving a measure of compromise. Subsequent to this the CA entered a fairly productive period. And then the opposition struck oro.

Capitalia, or “How to Stall a Constitutional Assembly 101”

Sucre is a beautiful little white-washed town that also still happened to be the constitutional capital under the old constitution (the new one, just passed, declines to explicitly name a capital, for reasons that will soon become apparent). The hundred year-old war which saw the legislative and executive branches incarcerated in La Paz, however, never really died in the hearts of some Sucreños (those from Sucre), and when the constitutional assembly was brought to Sucre (partly to avoid interference from the kind of street demonstrations that had defined Paceña (those from La Paz) politics since the fall of the military dictatorship), these Sucreños saw this as their opportunity to press their issue. Rally under the banner of Capitalia, the Sucre elite and romantically nostalgic petitioned to get the question of just where the capital should be under the new constitution. The La Paz (by way of El Alto)-heavy MAS basically took a “are you kidding me” attitude to the prospect of uprooting a hundred year-old capital and restoring it several hundred kilometers to the south-east, and passes a resolution taking removing Capitalia as a subject for debate on in the CA on August 15th, 2007. See Re-Founding Bolivia: A Nation's Struggle Over Constitutional Reform, published by the Democracy Center (2007).

Smelling opportunity, the opposition quickly took up Capitalia, riling up Sucreño populist sentiment and jamming CA proceedings with the cause. The Sucre elite did its part by repeatedly calling general strikes, arranging marches, calling upon the local university to preach the cause and force students to march (according to what a student told a friend of mine in Sucre), and arranging impassioned seminars filled with intellectuals making the argument that all this overkill was justified and valid. The marches turned into protests, and the protests turned into burning tires in the streets and threats to the assembly members and their families, to the point where the assembly called a recess for fear of their lives, in the hopes that they could try again later in a more sane environment.

Thus, seven months into the CA, effectively nothing had been accomplished. With the December 14 deadline to have a draft ready for popular referendum approaching and over 300 individual articles each requiring a 2/3rds majority to pass, the nation entered the month of November with a lot of skepticism, doubt and apprehension about both the effectiveness and desirability of the current process.

But no one was ready for what would come next.


Black November

The first week of the reopening of the assembly was extremely tame in comparison to the previous months, and thus when I left the city I hadn’t seen anything more than the typical Bolivian tradition of the firecracker-accompanied march. But two weeks later when I arrived in La Paz the news had changed. My friends were telling me that they were witnessing the same burning-tires-and-tear-gas dance between rioting students and counter-offensive police that they had seen months ago, only this time things seemed to be escalating rapidly. Apparently someone had put the lid on the pot and turned up the heat. They told me students were reporting professors ordering them to join in the mayhem, and they didn’t seem to balk at the opportunity for a little fun. MAS responded by removing the embattled assembly to a military college a little outside town that had a better security posture.

By this time, the social movements had about had it with what they were calling a right-wing counter-revolutionary offensive to stop a necessary social change. But they were also about fed up with the MAS’s power play and party politics, and so decided to take matters into their own hands. Thus, what the privately-owned and opposition-aligned television and print media called a “campesino circus” gathered around the military college to prevent any further interruption in the constitutional process. As a sign of how extreme the sentiment was among the social movements, the ponchos rojos (the militant wing of the Aymara social movement) marched en masse upon Sucre to confront the students from across the altiplano, on the way there beheading two dogs before a camera as a warning to the students involved in the offensive as to what their intentions would be when they arrived. They provided the video to the media to ensure their message got across, sparking wide-spread outrage amongst the urban middle classes.

Inside the besieged military college, the MAS assembly was fed up. PODEMOS claimed that the “campesino circus” had gone violent and thus had prevented their entrance. In their absence the MAS-dominated assembly made the unprecedented, unexpected, and unprocedural move of simply putting up for a final vote, in full, of a draft constitution which they, and only they, had written.

This pushed the Sucre students into overdrive, who decided to plunge their own city into an orgy of violence. Over the bloody weekend of 24-26 November the students laid siege to the military college and police positions around the city in a 72 -hour battle, laying waste to the White City of the Americas. Amid reports of independent press, such as the Catholic-church run Erbol, being shut down by the roaming mob, news eventually made it to the outside world that people were dying.

The other news that shocked the nation was the retreat of the police, in the face of overwhelming force, to nearby Potosí. Students burned three police buildings and the local taxation office, and all the public property inside. In the absence of guards, 160 incarcerated prisoners simply walked out. The roaming mob was setting fire to every official vehicle that drove across their path, making some city streets a fiery hell of twisted metal and burning rubber. When eventually the police’s absence and lack of targets finally hit home, the students finally began to calm, so when the Sucre leaders finally made official calls for calm, they were ready to hear it. Luckily people were able to make it work or school Monday morning, with a job well done over the weekend.

Immediately, emails and local newspapers were circulated depicting the level of the violence, and decrying the repressive actions of the government and the police. Putting aside the irony of a conquering force whining about repression, this also came across as pretty disingenuous to me. Students attacked police with overwhelming force, and once the police reacted with counter-force (after all, this is what police are for; maintaining the state’s monopoly of violence, right?) you start screaming about repression. My sister used to pull the same thing all the time when we were younger; she’d hit me first and then start screaming for mom almost immediately. And when the photos have fires, bloodied faces and broken bodies, well, that’s all the more effective. Unfortunately, this I think was the essence of the Sucre offensive; the Sucreños, and especially the students, were manipulated into a frenzy by the constant speeches and general strikes, emboldened by the constant claims of support from civic committee of Santa Cruz, and once the shit hit the fan it was Sucre’s streets and buildings and children (after all, even the police the students attacked grew up in Sucre too) who burned, broke and bled. Santa Cruz got its (failed) filibuster, but did Sucre really gain anything? After a period of effective autonomy when the national government retreated from the city, Sucre was basically in the same place as it was before the riots, 4 people and several buildings short.

The Chaos Spreads

The filibuster failed, but things really couldn’t have turned out better for the opposition. At no fault for not being present to block the ramming-through of the MAS-only constitution, they could now simply reject the entire thing as illegal and illegitimate. And that’s just what they did. The four media luna provinces and Cochabamba went into immediate revolt through a staggered week of general strikes against the “murderous, undemocratic socialist-fascist Evo” (and there were usually a few more racist and homophobic adjectives added in, just for good measure).

The violence spread immediately to Santa Cruz where MAS officials and their homes have been repeatedly attacked, with the most recent incident being a molotov cocktail being thrown into a child’s bedroom (luckily it bounced back out to no effect). Beni saw a day of violence in the capital after the opposition-aligned Prefect fired up his supporters, who promptly attacked a rival column of protesting campesino and indigenous. In Cochabamba, Prefect Manfred Reyes Villa had his notorious gangs patrolling the city looking to enforce his general strike, and hey, while you’re out there why not stick it to those dirty MAS-supporters; according to Bolivia commentator Jim Shultz’, at one point a motorcycle gang was positioned to ride over a line of police just so they could get their crack at some campesino protestors, “Mad Max-style.”

The spiraling violence started to affect even those not known to have cool heads. President Evo Morales, while still maintaining that the Sucre vote of the constitution “in full” was a victory and valid, reined in his party and appealed to the opposition by demanding that the CA reconvene to pass each and every article “in detail.” Jorge Tuto Quiroga, PODEMOS boss, former president and one-time leader of the right-wing party founded by Hugo Banzer, went on the air to express his party’s strategy, which was sane, responsible, admirable and entirely unrelated to anything his party had done, was doing or would do.

The March to Civil War?

Apparently impressed with how easy taking shortcuts around democratic and constitutional processes makes political life, MAS engaged in a quick furry of unilateral decisions that basically erased opposed concerns from the government’s agenda. First, in order to pass an extremely controversial change to the IDH law (the payout from the contract renegotiation which President Morales successfully negotiated during his first few months in office) , which would reduce the share sent through the Provincial offices in order to create a national pension program, President Morales led a march from El Alto to Plaza Murillo in order to surround Congress and ensure that the reform succeeds. Claiming that the crowd was hostile and threatening, the opposition refused to enter the building, leaving just MAS to pass the bill unanimously but unilaterally. Legitimately, MAS and President Morales do have a lot to explain for here, as just last September in New York he was proclaiming a budget surplus for the first time in Bilovian history; where did the money go that he needed to cut the Provinces’ budgets for education and infrastructure? Almost as an afterthought in the same session, Congress approved a change that made moving the CA from Sucre to MAS-friendly Oruro legal.

Second, President Morales’ sent a proposal for a law of revocation in which referendum elections will be held to determine whether the current regime should continue in office, stating “I propose to the conservative and non-conservative prefects that we submit, together, to a revocatory referendum. Let the people decide.” Congress should be expected to vote on this when it reconvenes in the New Year. This would affect not only the highest offices of power at the national level, including President Morales and his vice president, but also all the provincial prefects, including all Morales’ opposition in the eastern lowlands. This move has sparked criticism, appearing to abhor respect for the constitutionally mandates electoral processes. In effect, this is Morales throwing the gauntlet on the ground. This law basically boils down to a high school popularity contest; which of us do you guys like the most? But it’s also the democratic solution to the current crisis in which the people will determine the fate of the nation.

Finally, once the CA reconvened in Oruro MAS made sure that the city was filled with its supporters. Miners, alteños (those from El Alto), cocaleros, and indigenous from around the altiplano flooded the city, blocking exit from the building in which the CA was convened. Inside, the assembly rushed through the proceedings in a process characterized by little or no debate, rapidly-called votes, marathon voting that didn’t recess until all the votes on all 400-plus articles where completed, and the absence of the PODEMOS opposition, who stood at the back of the assembly yelling “Illegal! Illegal! ” and “this constitution is stained with blood” for 15 minutes before leaving, claiming that they were afraid of suffering aggression from MAS supporters. Other opposition party representatives, who did chose to participate, reported that the “multitude” outside barred their exit from the building, with one representative claiming that, when he tried to leave the building past midnight, the crowd forced him back inside yelling “Lazy! Lazy! Get to work!” In all, the assembly was convened for less than 16 hours before it passed all but one articles of the “in detail” version of the new Magna Carta. This article, of course, dealt with the legally defined size of latifundio.

With the opposition leaders appearing all over the private media screaming bloody murder over this apparent display of authoritarian power and howling about the blatant illegality of these unilateral actions, you’d think that this was all really bad for the opposition. But a few things put this in doubt. First, when I walked past Plaza Murillo the day that the IDH revision was passed, the “violent campesino circus” that I saw looked more like elderly people sitting on the ground chewing coca and a lonely drummer keeping time; but who am I to judge the fear response mechanisms of the opposition? In any event, the “circus” didn’t impede the entrance of other opposition congress members. More importantly, the importance of entering if the opposition really wanted to kill the new CPE, it simply had to join in the proceedings and vote “no,” which would block the 2/3rds of the present sitting members voting requirement. The fact that they instead chose to wipe their hands clean of the assembly process by boycotting the voting is very telling. They knew that if this version of the CPE was killed in assembly the most likely result would be another round of the process, not the end of the constitutional project. And they knew that the unilateral actions of the government in the recent weeks can justifiably be characterized as procedurally illegal. Rather, what seems to be very obvious once you put yourself in their shoes is that the decision to boycott the national government’s agenda in full, including the IDH law and all other controversial bills, would get them much more political currency than standing and fighting in the voting halls.


Division Day

Seen from this perspective, the next major event was not very shocking at all. With the government and its supporters celebrating what seemed to an early Christmas, the media luna’s provincial authorities simultaneously met to pass resolutions unilaterally declaring themselves “autonomous” from the national government. While the new CPE does contain sections allowing for autonomy of political departments as well as of indigenous communities, of municipalities and of regions, the autonomy statutes passed by the provinces go far beyond what is legally provided for.

The new CPE allows for autonomy in order to bring a measure of decentralization to the Bolivian political structure, allowing for the devolution of some government functions to departmental and community levels. But the CPE is also premised on the concept of returning to the originarios the collective right to land, territory and sovereignty, meaning that key natural resources should be the province of the people collectively. Thus, articles 273, 278 and 306, providing for the autonomy of departments, grants direct elections of officials and legislative power over departmental norms “in the ambit of their exclusively assigned competencies,” meaning that the national government reserves certain powers of economic and social regulation to itself. Thus, for example, articles 373 and 378 reserve exclusive authority of regulation of hydrocarbons and the production, transportation and distribution of energy to the national government. Further, articles 320 and 378 prioritize national investment over foreign investment and limit private interests and the ability to grant concessions for the exploitation of hydrocarbons. The autonomy statutes of Santa Cruz and Tarija explicitly purport to devolve authority over the exploitation and commercialization of hydrocarbons in their departments. This is in clear violation of the new CPE.

A similar analysis follows for the authority over “social property” and “national resources” (art. 357) and over mineral resources (art. 369). The Oruro “en detail” CA was unable to achieve a 2/3rds vote for article 398, which would determine the limit to the amount of land which would be considered latifundio, and thus the two options offered will now go before popular vote along with the rest of the constitution. But both options would clearly establish that the authority for land reform measures would be reserved for the national government.

The Santa Cruz statute explicitly violates both the spirit and character of these articles. Thus, 4 out of Bolivia’s 9 provinces have declared autonomous in a manner explicitly in violation of the character of the agreements reached just days before, in the absence of their representative’s votes. The government has taken this to be a separatist call for independence, and of a seditionist character. The opposition has refuted this claim by arguing that they’re simply exerting their rights to autonomous governance and giving assurances that they’re attempting anything of a separatist character. But in other criticisms of the MAS government they have made clear they consider it corrupt, inefficient, and authoritarian of the same character as communist one-party states of the past century, making constant references to Morales’ ties to the Chavez and Castro governments (assumed to be obvious examples of failed states caused by “outdated socialist ideologies”).

In light of their near-absolute opposition to just about anything the MAS government has done or is attempting to do, and in light of their explicit disregard for the constitution that might become binding law early next year, it’s hard to believe that the media luna isn’t just a little interested in separating themselves from at least certain aspects of the “new Bolivia.” Clearly, defeating the national push for land reforms and social (or at least state) control of hydrocarbons and other national resources, blocking redistribution efforts, and ensuring their freedom to deal with international investors in the exploitation of the resources found within their borders is of utmost importance. But the fact that Santa Cruz is introducing ID cards defining a citizenship distinct from the national one, and refuting the authority of the national police within the department, strongly suggests they’re interested in a fairly sweeping separation.

If they succeed in achieving the level of autonomy they’ve declared, the opposition’s tactic of stall-riot-and-boycott should be viewed as an unlikely success; they’ve managed to make the MAS government look ineffective and repressive, sustain a moral high ground by not compromising, and finally achieving everything they wanted.

In any event, the radical nature of both side’s actions leading up to December 15th, the “marcha de los pueblos,” made the peaceful and festive atmosphere that day quite surprising. Perhaps everyone was just ready for Christmas.

Tarija Protest

Fidel Asesora, Chavez Ordena, Evo Cumple—Tarijeño Protest Banner

Many of the criticisms leveled at the MAS government by the opposition are not unfair, at least from the perspective of many Bolivians. President Morales’ combative language in his political duels with, amongst others, the leaders of Tarija, Cochabamba, and Santa Cruz has done much to alienate large groups of former supporters in those departments; his repeated scapegoating of the U.S. Embassy and other foreign interests (the claims that Brazilians were present in the uprising in Beni is an example of this) has alienated much of the middle classes that fear international isolation; the MAS’s decision to reduce the legislature to a unicameral body (which would function to bolster the communities that most strongly constitute the party), as well as its actions increasing it’s power at the expense of direct representation in government across all communities, have alienated much of the indigenous and social movement base that made the 2005 and 2006 elections such an overwhelming victory. The urban classes complain often of corruption and widely of inefficiency and technical incapacity by many of the political appointees. Many highly-educated, especially the youth with opportunities for employment outside of Bolivian borders and those employed in businesses with ties to international markets, are disturbed by the moves towards state control of certain industries and the moves towards socialism, for fears this will adversely effect employment opportunities (though the new CPE defines Bolivia as a mixed economy, guaranteeing many forms of property, including communal and private). And the increased influence of Venezuelan President Chavez is seen by many to be an unwarranted influence by an external force, whatever the intentions might be. In short, there are many reasons why MAS, and particularly Morales’, popularity has diminished since the beginning of the constitutional process.

However, a great number of the criticisms are widely far of the mark. The relationship between Chavez and Morales is very complicated, but it appears to be based mainly on genuine ideological agreement and the fact that Venezuela’s offer of conditionality-free sovereign loans enables Bolivia to reject the undesirable influence of Washington and the international creditor cartel embodied by the IMF and the World Bank. See Mark Weisbrot, Latin America: The End of An Era, Center for Economic Policy and Research (2006). In any event, Chavez is not the “authoritarian threat to democracy” in his own country that he’s depicted to be in the international media, and so it’s hard to see why he would lead Morales to become one. See Mark Weisbrot, Venezuela: Still a Democracy, New Statesman (November 21, 2007), and Progressive Change in Venezuela, The Nation (December 6, 2007).

The recent unilateral moves by MAS are certainly a little disturbing. Whether or not the “campesino circuses” have actually blocked PODEMOS members from entering any buildings, under threat of violence, or whether this is just a pleasant excuse facilitating the opposition’s boycott tactic, it’s certainly not very diplomatic of MAS and President Morales to mobilize “multitudes” every time they want to get something done. But to call this evidence of authoritarianism, as the opposition has been quick to claim, seems a bit of a stretch. When the MAS representatives passed the “in full” version from their beseiged position in Sucre, they phrased their actions as “turning over to the people” the responsibility for approving or rejecting the new CPE. This seemed more a sign of desperation than of Stalinist machinations. As Jim Shultz reminded us, if the MAS had desired to simply pass their version unilaterally all along, they could have easily done so a year ago without going through the difficult turmoil of the CA. Rather, it’s quite obvious they were interested in genuine compromise. The recent actions are obvious the result of frustration and desperation after over a year of political gridlock at the hands of a small elite.

More fundamentally, the claim of authoritarianism falls short because it simply does not accurately characterize the nature of MAS. Recall that MAS is a coalition party made up principally of syndicalistas; people raised in agriculture-based unions and radical social movements. In this culture the primary virtues are stick with your allies and take care of your comrades, because any weakness in your unity will be exploited by the opposition and the State to your downfall. If there are problems you deal with it in the group, not in public forum.

This is precisely the essence of MAS’s tactics; mobile and stick together for a unified front against the movement’s enemies. This explains the manipulation of the court system to prevent its use against MAS and its objectives. This also explains the reluctance to pursue legal action against cocaleros in the street battles that occurred in Cochabamba in January of this year. They are not state-authoritarians at all, but rather syndicalistas caught in a delicate balance between staying true to the membership of their base and dealing with the demands of being the government.

However this is also precisely the source of the problems for the MAS. This is all well and good for a movement, but it’s not really what you want an elected regime doing. First off, if it’s all about us and them, how are you ever going to get anything done in a setting where your currently eroded electoral base hovered at barely over 50%? But more importantly, the political wing of a movement is supposed to be pushed by the movement on the ground, not using it as a political weapon every time it needs to put some pressure on the other side. In this regard, MAS and Morales are morally equivalent with the Machiavellian oligarchs who have manipulated both their own bases and the Sucreño students into racist and sub-nationalist frenzies. And it is this more than anything else that could lead to the collapse of popular support for their government.

2008: the Year of Referendums

What’s next for Bolivia? This year we’re going to see a frenzy of elections: the vote for the CPE; the (possible) revocatory referendum determining which of the current leadership at both national and departmental levels gets to stay and who has to go; and the departmental autonomy votes to determine whether they are accepted by the people.

The political landscape is uncertain. The Morales government has faced a number of defeats and has alienated much of the middle classes and lost support from some of its former base. But it has delivered on many of the most important issues which led to its success in 2005. On the other hand the opposition stands stronger than ever, fresh from its moral victory boycotting the votes over the CPE, enabling it to reject as invalid and illegal the entire project of the national government and, based on this argument, declare a level of autonomy which would otherwise be impossible.

While commentators have so far maintained that actual civil war and political division in the form of secession is impossible, and the meeting between the departmental prefects and the central leadership of the national government appears to have significantly calmed both sides, giving them space to find middle ground and compromise, the possibility that the political battle could escalate once again into violent street confrontations as both sides in the struggle flex their street muscle is still very likely. While Santa Cruz has been belligerent in its claims about the weakness of the Morales government and its inability to prevent their autonomy movements, the government has been just as adamant in their intolerance of any movement purporting to divide the newly-remade nation.

Though the recent dialogue achieved an agreement in which the government made the concession to “combatibalize” the CPE with the autonomy statutes, Vice President Álvaro García Linera assured that any such changes would be “small” and would mostly consist of “correcting errors.” This could be taken to refer to the difference between the government and the opposition’s policies with respect to natural resources and land

The wild card, then, is the reaction of the indigenous, especially those in the eastern lowlands, and whether they decide to align with a constitution that would bring return lands long-stolen from them, or reject a party focused perhaps too-heavily on it’s own political success, rather than those of its supporters. Most likely the formerly marginalized will side with the MAS, recognizing that “if the government fails, the process will also be frustrated.” See Froilán Laime Ajacopa, Las criticas no deben socavar este proceso,” Pukara (Dec. 2007—Jan. 2008), pg. 3, arguing that the indigenous must “distinguish between the principal enemy (the right and colonialism) and the secondary enemy (the lukewarm government), which is more or less aligned” with their interests. The historic march to overcome 500 years of indigenous domination, under the banner of an equal and plurinational Bolivia, hangs in the balance.

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